Cozumel, called the "Island of the Swallows" by its original inhabitants, was once the site of Mayan fertility rites and a pirate base in the 17th century. Today this small island (only 10 miles wide by 28 miles long - but still Mexico's largest island), is the home of 50,000 Mexicans and zillions of tourists - so it seems. But Cozumel (average temperature: 82 degrees) deserves to be a bustling tourist place - it competes with Grand Cayman as the best snorkeling/diving site in the Caribbean, and it's the jumping off point for tours of the fabled cities of the Mayans.
The typical cruise itinerary sees the cruise ship stop at the crack of dawn at Playa del Carmen ("Carmen's Beach") on the mainland, just long enough for passengers going on the Mayan expeditions to disembark. Cozumel is reached shortly thereafter, and if you're a good sleeper, you probably won't have even noticed the first stop. A few cruise ships go straight to Cozumel, and then ferry you back to the mainland (at least a 45 minute ride), to start the trek to the Mayan ruins at Tulum.
Depending on how many ships are in port, your ship may dock at one of the new international terminals (about four miles from town but closer to the best beaches), or may anchor and tender passengers ashore directly to the main pier in San Miguel.
DUTY FREE - HEAVEN OR HELL?At one of the international terminals, the whole dock is a brand-new air-conditioned mall, selling a lot of duty-free stuff, but much else as well. This mall seemed incredibly long to me (the opposite to my wife), and I thought I was having my worst nightmare - being locked in a shopping mall with no exits. I pointed out to my wife that many stores had signs indicating that if you could buy the same item in town at a cheaper price, the store would refund you the difference. As my wife correctly pointed out, was she supposed to end up with two of everything? I shut up.
DOWNTOWN SAN MIGUEL
When you finally get to the end of the world's longest mall, you can get a taxi into the heart of downtown for $4.00 (but, as always, agree on the price before you climb in). San Miguel is small enough that all shops and restaurants are within easy walking distance. As with most Mexican ports, US dollars are widely accepted, and store personnel speak English. If Cozumel should be your first stop on your first cruise, you may find San Miguel a little "tacky", and the vendors a little insistent, but those familiar with other Caribbean and Mexican cruise ports will find Cozumel one of the better places. Free island maps may be obtained at the Tourism Office in Plaza del Sol in downtown San Miguel. The museum in the Hotel Playa has interesting displays of the island's natural history, with emphasis on the spectacular coral reefs.
SLOTH HUSBAND'S TOURIf you want to read about ship's tours to Mayan ruins or snorkeling/diving sites, skip over the next few paragraphs because first I want to describe the "sloth husband's tour". To qualify for this tour, you need to be a husband or the equivalent. You've arrived in Cozumel, but you're not interested in visiting the musty, dusty Mayan ruins, or eyeballing fish while snorkeling or diving. On the other hand, you feel you're not getting your money's worth from the cruise if you don't go ashore but, at the same time, you're fearful of being the "donkey" - trailing behind your better half, and carrying the results of her forays into various souvenir stores. Here's my secret tour for you (and another couple).
First of all, you advise everyone that you know the best place to shop in Cozumel. Grab a taxi at the dock and ask the driver to take you to Los Cinco Soles (pronounced "Los Sinco Soul-less") which is the last of the stores on the long waterfront road, at the corner of Avenue Rafael Melgar and 8th Street (Calle 8). The taxi ride will cost about $5. Once inside the store (which seems to stretch for about two blocks), you and your buddy tell your ladies that you'll meet them at the far end of the store. Here you'll find a great bar/restaurant called "Pancho's Backyard". Order some of their superb margaritas. Keep in mind that if it seems a bit early for a cocktail, it's already after 4 p.m. in Venice, Italy. Of course, you could have cappuccinos instead. Rest your feet, tell each other tall stories, and look out the window at the Xel-Ha (if it's still there), a ferry boat that has washed up on the beach as a result of an unsuccessful duel with a large cruise ship, and subsequently the victim of a hurricane.
Los Cinco Soles has just about everything in it that you (or rather, your spouses) would like to buy, including not only souvenirs, but also arts and crafts from all over Mexico. When the ladies catch up with you about an hour and a half later, they'll tell you how much money they saved by buying items "on sale" (if I had all the money my wife has saved over the years on "sales", I'd be a billionaire).
By now it's close to lunchtime. Walk back a few blocks so that the ladies feel they have seen some other stores. Keep an eye out for a caricature statue of Fidel Castro outside one of the stores. Grab a taxi and ask to be taken to "Lobster's Cove", a waterfront restaurant that's on your way back to the cruise dock. On the way, you might want to ask your driver to stop briefly at the post office where you can run in and buy a sheet of Cozumel stamps as an unusual souvenir - there's a tropical fish one where the whole sheet looks like one picture, rather than individual pictures on the individual stamps (see photo at the beginning of this article).
At Lobster's Cove you can have a really great lobster (or other) lunch at a reasonable price in fun surroundings (the restaurant is built like a giant Polynesian hut). Have some more margaritas under the many swirling overhead fans. Enjoy the unobstructed harbor view. Walk out on the beach, and look at all the cruise ships. Eventually, you'll have to return to the ship by taxi, having successfully completed the "Sloth Husband's Tour of Cozumel". Us sloths need to stick together (grin).
(ALMOST) FREE NON-SHIP'S SHORE EXCURSIONS
- Chankanaab National ParkThis nature park has a saltwater lagoon. underwater caves, offshore reefs, an archaeological park, a botanical garden, a wildlife sanctuary, reproductions of Mayan dwellings, a "swim with the dolphins" excursion, a white sandy beach, and a changing area with lockers and showers. Both scuba divers and snorkelers will have a chance to see a sunken ship offshore. The 10-minute taxi ride to get there will cost about $7, and the admission fee is about the same (free for children 9 and under).
- La Ciba HotelJust four blocks to the left of the main pier downtown, the admission fee of $5 per person includes a beach towel, your first drink, and use of their freshwater pools and their deck and beach. When snorkeling here you may see the sunken plane from the James Bond movie "Thunderball".
- BeachesMany say that Playa San Francisco is the best beach with its three miles of white sand. It's a $12 taxi ride from downtown (even less if you're docked at the international terminal). Others prefer Playa del Sol, more famous but more crowded, about a mile south of Playa San Francisco. Playa Bonita is said to be a great uncrowded beach, but a taxi will cost a lot more as it's on the east side of the island.
- Snorkeling and DivingWith underwater visibility reaching 250 feet, Cozumel rivals Grand Cayman as the diving/snorkeling capital of the Caribbean. Twenty miles of coral reefs have been set aside as an underwater national park, including Palancar Reef, the world's second largest natural coral formation. If you have your own equipment, you can do your own tour to some of the places noted below.
SHIP'S EXCURSIONS (NOT SO FREE)These were the tours offered (and not offered) by Carnival in February, 1999.
MAYAN RUINSThe three main sites (from Cozumel), in increasing order of importance, (and cost and time!), are Tulum, Coba and Chichen Itza (often called Chicken Pizza). Let's face it, you'll want to have at least a vague interest in Mayan history to take any of these excursions. Fellow columnist Doug Terhune has written (in respect of Tulum), "the ruins are definitely not worth visiting unless you absolutely love that kind of stuff" - Doug would rather do the "fiesta party boat" with non-stop rum punch (grin).
- Chichen ItzaThe largest and most famous of the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan, Chichen Itza is an exhausting 3 1/2 bus ride each way, or an expensive (over $200 per person) excursion by air. Best known of the ruins is the pyramid of Kukulcan which is actually an astronomical clock to mark the equinoxes and the solstices. During each equinox, light striking the pyramid gives the illusion of a giant snake slithering down its 365 steps. I did this tour (by bus) a number of years ago, and while I found it absolutely fascinating, I was also absolutely exhausted when I got back to the ship. Note that some cruise lines - such as Carnival - don't always offer this excursion.
- TulumAn hour and a half bus ride south of Playa del Carmen, Tulum is the only Mayan city built on the coast, and was the only city occupied by the Mayans when the Spanish conquerors arrived on their cruise ships. Tulum is a walled fort of about 60 structures including the impressive pyramid Castle building. Carnival offered this 6 1/2 hour excursion for $66 per person, starting at 7 a.m. (including the time for the round-trip tender trip between Playa del Carmen and Cozumel).
- CobaAlthough Coba is the site of one of the most important city-states in the Mayan empire, it's rarely the destination for a cruise ship excursion, being another hour's drive from Tulum. Those with an adventuresome spirit might enjoy it as only 5% of the site has been restored, and you can do your own exploring.
HORSEBACK RIDING TOURA bus trip first to Buena Vista ranch, "in the heart of tropical savannah." Ride around the ruins on a horse that fits your riding ability and experience. You'll have a chance to sit on a real live bull (I'll take the fake one myself). Cost of $71 for 3 1/2 hours.
CERTIFIED SCUBAThis four hour tour consists of a deep dive of 80 feet at Palancar Reef followed by a 50 foot dive at another of the famous reefs. Tanks, weights and weight belts are provided, and other equipment may be rented. Cost was $57.
ISLAND ADVENTURE SNORKEL TOURYou travel by boat to the Columbian Reef, the last reef on the island. Because of its distant location, "it's pure and virtually untouched." Equipment is included. On the way back, unlimited beer and tequila slammers are provided, guaranteeing that this will be a noisy group as they reboard the ship. Cost: $30
FIESTA PARTY BOATLook for Doug on board as you enjoy free drinks and live music while sailing to the Costa del Sol where you can snorkel, visit a small tropical zoo, play volleyball and go horseback riding (for an extra charge). Dance and play games on your way back at the end of this four hour party before passing out in your cabin and missing dinner and karaoke night.
JEEP ADVENTURE TO PARADISEEach jeep holds four passengers, "one of which will be selected as the driver." The caravan of jeeps takes you off-road through the jungle to Bahia Ciega where you have a choice of paddling your own canoe or riding on a catamaran for the one mile trip to Isla Passion. Complimentary drinks are then offered on this passionate island. While not stated, it appears that you return to the ship by boat. Tour not recommended for passengers under 85 years of age. This 5 1/2 hour tour costs $74 and includes a buffet lunch (presumably not while you're driving the jeeps).
COZUMEL SNORKEL TOURThis 2 1/2 tour is for beginners as well as experienced snorkelers, and gear is provided. The destination varies depending on which site is considered to be the best that day. Both morning and afternoon excursions were available at a cost of $26.
SAIL, SNORKEL & BEACH PARTY TOURThis 3 1/2 hour tour for $40 appears to be the same as the "Fiesta Party Boat" tour except that the boat is a Fury Catamaran, and not the Fiesta "triple-decker party boat". Snorkel equipment is included.
BEGINNER'S SCUBA TOURBeginners are given 45 minutes of instruction by a "team of certified PADI instructors." The dive site reaches a maximum of 25 feet. This two hour tour was offered in both the morning and the afternoon for a cost of $70.
THE MERMAID SUB OCEAN VIEW TOURThe ship has seats below water level where you can view fish, coral formations and a sunken plane ("originally placed there for a Mexican disaster film"). This "one hour minimum" excursion cost $38.
Whether you are a snorkeler, shopper, diver, historian, beach bum or even a sloth, I think you'll enjoy Cozumel!
Originally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.
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